US: Public health experts and politicians support advocacy to modernise Iowa’s HIV law

Activism to modernise the unscientific, unjust and stigmatising HIV-specific criminal statute in Iowa is heating up.  Last month, the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group voted to support advocacy efforts to have HIV treated like other similar conditions and threats to public health. To accomplish this, they have called for the repeal of Iowa’s HIV criminalisation statute.

Next Monday, October 15th in the state capital, Des Moines, there will be another of a series of planned CHAIN/Sero Project community forums highlighting these efforts. All Iowa legislators within a 30 mile radius of Des Moines have been invited and Iowa Senator Matt McCoy (Democrat), who earlier this year introduced a bill to repeal and modernise the law, will be in attendance.  Although the bill didn’t make it out of subcommittee, he plans to reintroduce another in the legislative session that begins in January.

HIV is not a crime: Monday 15 Oct, 6:30pm at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines,1800 Bell Ave, Des Moines, Iowa. covered the last community forum, held in Mason City in September, in their story, ‘Groups call for revising HIV disclosure statute.’

The state of Iowa currently has one of the strictest HIV laws in the nation, making the lack of disclosure a Class B felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a lifetime of sex offender status.

The statute makes no exception for lack of transmission of the HIV virus, nor does it take into account the fact that a person infected with HIV is taking the prescribed medication and has very little or no chance of passing it on.

Gay rights groups and others, including the Iowa Department of Public Health, are calling for modernization of the 1998 statute to focus penalties only on intentional or documented transmission of the HIV virus.

They say Iowa’s law is having the unintended effect of discouraging individuals from undergoing HIV testing and from obtaining access to medications that could save their lives and the lives of everyone with whom they may have intimate contact.

Iowa, which has a relatively low HIV incidence rate, ranks second in the nation in prosecutions for nondisclosure.

Pictured Left to Right: Iowa State Representative Sharon Steckman and State Senator Amanda Ragan, CHAIN community organizer and Sero Advisory Board Member, Tami Haught leading Iowa’s campaign to modernize the HIV criminalization law and Sero Advisory Board Member and Activist, Nick Rhoades at a community forum in Mason City on Iowa’s HIV Criminalization Law on Monday, September 10, 2012.

(Picture courtesy of The Sero Project)

Reproduced below is the press release from CHAIN (Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network) announcing the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group vote and providing background to their advocacy.

HIV Community Planning Group Supports Repeal of Iowa HIV Criminlization Statute

Des Moines, September 25, 2012

In an historic move, the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group has voted to support advocacy efforts to have HIV treated like other similar conditions and threats to public health. To accomplish this, they have called for the repeal of Iowa’s HIV criminalization statute.

Iowa, like most states, has a law that prohibits intentional transmission of communicable diseases. This statute, Iowa Code 139A.20 is part of public health code. HIV, however, is covered by a separate criminal code, Iowa Code 709C, which makes exposing someone to HIV without their consent a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Repeal of 709C would allow HIV to be covered by the same public health code that governs other infectious diseases.

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors has called for review of HIV criminalization statutes to bring them in line with contemporary science and knowledge about the real routes, risks, and consequences of HIV transmission. The Iowa Department of Public Health has echoed the call for review of the statute. In a letter to the editor of The Des Moines Register on July 29, Randy Mayer, Chief of the Bureau of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis, asked that HIV be treated in the same way as other serious infectious diseases.

“Testing and treatment are our best tools for fighting the epidemic in Iowa Research has now demonstrated that the statutes haven’t had the intended effect of promoting disclosure. We believe that our public health efforts will be more successful without having to fight the stigma that these statutes can create,” said Mayer.

“Having the prestige and expertise of the HIV Community Planning Group working to repeal Iowa’s criminalization statute is vitally important,” said Tami Haught, an HIV+ Nashua resident who is coordinating CHAIN’s statewide campaign to reform the Iowa statute. “The members of the CPG include some of the best-informed and most respected public health professionals and community advocates combating HIV We believe their recognition that the criminalization statute is hurting the public health will be persuasive with legislators.”

Iowa’s statute 709C imposes harsh penalties on persons with HIV who cannot prove they disclosed their HIV status in advance to sex partners. About 25 Iowans with HIV have been charged to date, with some convictions resulting in lengthy sentencing and lifetime sex offender registration requirements, even though HIV was not transmitted and there was little or no risk of it being transmitted.

The statute has been criticized by public health officials, legal experts, and patient advocates in Iowa and across the country as counter-productive, discriminatory, and contributing to further stigmatization of people with HIV. About 36 U.S. states and territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes Originally intended to slow HIV transmission, these laws were typically passed years ago when much less was known about HIV transmission A growing body of research shows how these statutes drive stigma, discourage testing, and are making the epidemic worse.

“HIV criminalization discourages people from getting tested—you can’t be prosecuted if you don’t know your HIV status—yet we know that most new infections are transmitted by people who have not yet gotten tested,” said Jordan Selha, co-chair of Iowa’s Community Planning Group “It’s time we treat HIV like other communicable diseases and use public health science rather than criminal law to guide our approaches to prevention No other disease is singled out as a criminal threat in this way.”

CHAIN has coordinated a statewide campaign to educate and mobilize communities to lobby lawmakers to review the statute when the legislature goes into session in January 2013. They have held community forums in Mason City and Ames.

You can help efforts to repeal the statute by contacting your state legislators and the governor’s office and asking that Iowa Code 709C be repealed. CHAIN will be holding an educational forum on October 15th at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines and at Simpson College in Indianola on January 16, 2013.

The HIV Community Planning Group promotes, through an ongoing participatory process, effective HIV programming in Iowa in order to reduce the spread of HIV and to provide access to services for those infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandated community planning for HIV prevention in 1993. The process is designed to create a collaborative effort between public health and the communities they serve.

CHAIN is very excited to have the support of the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group. To join CHAIN’s listserve or get involved with CHAIN and the education and mobilization campaign, contact tami.haught2012(at), or follow CHAIN on Facebook.

Sweden: Majority of MPs want to reform HIV disclosure obligation and ‘HIV exposure’ criminal liability

Two articles commemorating 30 years of HIV in Sweden in Svenska Dagbladet by journalist Tobias Brandel suggest that public – and political – opinion is being positively impacted by a two-year campaign by RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education), HIV-Sweden, and RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) to raise awareness and advocate against overly-broad HIV criminalisation.

The first article, with the headline, ‘HIV-positive convicted harsher in Sweden‘ focuses on the fact that although HIV has been transformed from a fatal to a chronic disease, more people with HIV have been jailed in Sweden in the 2000s than in the 1980s and ’90s combined.

The second, with the headline, ‘HIV-law divides Government’ highlights the fact that a majority of MPs want to revise both the Communicable Diseases Act (with its ‘information obligation’) and the criminal law that currently allows prosecutions for people with HIV for potential or perceived HIV exposure as well as transmission. However, there are divisions within both the coalition Government and the leading opposition parties.

Since these articles are the most up to date descriptions of the current moves towards law and policy reform in Sweden, I am including (in English via Google translate, with slight amendments for clarity) the full text of both articles below.

This is the Google-translated version, read the original article here

When Joakim Berlin received his diagnosis, HIV was a death sentence.

“The big question my relatives asked was when I was going to die. Of course, I thought it would go pretty quickly,” he says.

It was 1991, five years before the arrival of antiretroviral drugs. Today he leads a “totally normal” life.

“Sometimes I get side effects such as cramps and fatigue. But HIV’s biggest impact has been on my social life. Human ignorance is problematic. The fear is still there.” Neither legislation nor case law has followed the progress of medicine. Although HIV has been transformed from a fatal to a chronic disease more people with HIV have been jailed in Sweden in the 2000s than in the 1980s and ’90s combined. Anyone who has HIV – and knows it – and has unprotected sex with another person is at risk of prosecution for ‘aggravated assault’, ‘attempted aggravated assault’ or ‘creating danger’.

The last year has seen four such convictions in Sweden,  according to a review by Svenska Dagbladet. All have resulted in prison sentences – even though they were not convicted of infecting their sexual partners. Only in one case was found to be HIV-positive plaintiff, but failed to clarify whether it was the offender who infected him.

A total of 44 people have convicted of crimes related to HIV since the late 1980s. This makes Sweden one of the countries in the world with the largest number of prosecutions in relation to the number of HIV-positive people, according to the Global Criminalisation Scan.

Sweden was also singled out as a bad example of how the law is used against people with HIV at the International AIDS Conference in Washington last summer. Even UNAIDS, the UN organisation for HIV / AIDS, criticises Sweden.

Ake Örtqvist, an infectious disease physician for Stockholm County Council, is critical of the Swedish court’s reasoning over risk and intent.

“The courts judge very differently which is very unfortunate. Courts and prosecutors should have an increased knowledge about the disease and the concept of risk,” he says.

Last year Denmark abolished a law that criminalises people with HIV referencing the current effective HIV drugs.

“The impact that treatment has in lowering viral load and infectiousness is very real, even if it is scientifically always hard to say zero. I think the courts reasoning is odd and they should embrace the fact that infection risk today is extremely small. One must ask whether it is reasonable to judge according to the Penal Code when the infection is well controlled and transmission has not occurred,” said Jan Albert, Professor of Infectious Disease at the Karolinska Institute. In other words, the virus is spread very rarely by “HIV-men” as the condemned is usually called in the media. The real vectors are people who do not know they have HIV and therefore do not receive treatment.

According to the Communicable Diseases Act HIV-positive individuals must inform their sex partners of their status before having sex. Although it is not possible to judge according to the Infectious Diseases Act so courts often refer to information obligations.

Both RFSL and RFSU argue that the law is actually counter-productive.

“Of course you should tell if you have HIV before sex, but you should not risk punishment if you fail to do so. Criminalisation can also lead to a false sense of security, to believe that the person who is not saying anything does not have HIV,” says RFSU President Kristina Ljungros.

She also believes that the prosecutions may deter people from testing. Even the UN-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law concludes in a new report that criminalisation contributes to fewer people knowing their HIV status.

Preliminary data from a new U.S. study, received by Svenska Dagbladet, supports these ideas. The Sero Project, in collaboration with Eastern Michigan University interviewed more than 2000 HIV-positive individuals in the United States. Half of the respondents believe that it is reasonable to avoid HIV testing for fear of prosecution, and one in four say they know one or more individuals who chose not to test for fear of being prosecuted.

Joakim Berlin has lived with the virus for over 20 years and works at Positive Group West [part of HIV Sweden] as well as being a member of RFSL’s board.

“It is the responsibility of both parties to protect themselves, so you cannot have laws that criminalise only one party,” he said.

Is it not reasonable to tell your sexual partner so that he can make an informed decision?

“I have the responsibility to ensure that you do not get HIV, and you have the responsibility to ensure that you are not putting yourself at risk,” he says. “The law places full responsibility on the HIV-positive person while everyone else thinks that they can do whatever they want without consequences. Most people get HIV from someone who does not know their HIV-positive status.”


This is the Google-translated version, view the original here

Legislation and case law surrounding HIV has not kept pace with developments in medicine, as Svenska Dagbladet showed yesterday. Although modern HIV treatment reduces infectiousness dramatically, the law is the same as in the 1980s. There is now a majority in parliament who want a review of the Communicable Diseases Act, which forces people with HIV to disclose their status before having sex.

“We think that the issue should be revisited. Our knowledge about HIV is changing rapidly. We can not have laws that are outdated,” says Barbro Westerholm, Liberal Party social policy spokesperson.

As previously reported to Svenska Dagbladet both infectious disease doctors and scientists are critical of Swedish courts that sentence HIV-positive people to prison for unprotected sex, despite there being no alleged transmission. As well as revisiting the Communicable Diseases Act, the Liberal Party would  like there to be a review of judicial practice.

The position of the Moderate Party is that there is no need for such a review, but the Party is now in discussion.

“We have not changed our minds, but we’re talking about it. It is clear that we must keep up with new facts and analyses. There is a debate,” says Mats Gerdau, a member of the social committee [which would recommend such a review to the Government].

The Centre Party is open to an amendment of the Penal Code in respect of how the courts reason about intentional and negligent [states of mind] – but they are clearly against removing the Communicable Diseases Act’s notification requirement.

“There is an information obligation for all diseases that are generally hazardous. It is completely illogical to say that it should be removed only for HIV,” says Anders W Jonsson, chairman of the social committee.

The Christian Democrats see no need for any kind of review. All four Alliance parties must agree before the law can be reviewed. The [opposition] Social Democrats, The Green Party and the Left are all clear that they want the information requirements to be removed for HIV.

“The law is counterproductive. It places responsibility solely on the person with HIV. It is a repressive law which, at worst, means people do not get tested,” says Eva Olofsson (Left), also a member of the social committee.

Agneta Luttropp (Greens), another member of the social committee, believes that the law creates a false sense of security.

“The responsibility to protect is on both sides, on both the person who may have HIV and the person who does not. We hope and believe that a change in the law could lead to people being more invested in having protected sex,” she says.

However, the Social Democrats want to keep the information obligation and do not believe that judicial practice needs to be reviewed.

US: Study finds criminalising alleged HIV non-disclosure an ineffective HIV prevention tool

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health by the leading US researcher into the impacts of HIV criminalisation, Carol Galletly J.D. and Ph.D., of the Center for AIDS Intervention Research at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has concluded that a New Jersey law requiring individuals with HIV to disclose their HIV-positive status to their sexual partners does not appear to be an effective HIV prevention intervention.

In the article ‘New Jersey’s HIV Exposure Law and the HIV-Related Attitudes, Beliefs, and Sexual and Seropositive Status Disclosure Behaviors of a Sample of Persons Living with HIV’, Galletly and colleagues surveyed 479 HIV-positive New Jersey residents between March and October 2010 about the New Jersey law that requires HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to sexual partners.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C: 34-5

A person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he or she is infected with HIV, he or she commits an act of sexual penetration without the informed consent of the other person.

The study found that the law does not seem to be effective as an HIV prevention tool. Although 51 percent of study participants reported knowledge of the law, there was no difference between those aware and unaware of the law in terms of HIV disclosure, risky sex, and condom use.  In fact, most of the participants reported complying with the letter of the law for the previous year regardless of whether they were aware of the law or not.

Study abstract

An article by the CDC at summarises additional findings on HIV-related stigma and perceptions of responsibility for HIV prevention.

Knowledge of the law was not associated with negative outcomes for HIV-infected study participants. Persons aware of the law did not report greater social hostility toward persons with HIV or experience more discomfort with HIV-status disclosure or more HIV-related stigma. On the other hand, those who were not aware of the law perceived more social hostility toward HIV-infected persons, experienced greater HIV-related stigma, and were less comfortable with HIV-status disclosure.

The 479 study participants, who were aged 19 to 66 years, were 45 percent female and were approximately 66 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Caucasian. When the researchers questioned them about responsibility for HIV prevention, 90 percent believed that an HIV-infected person bore at least half of the responsibility for ensuring that their seronegative partners did not contract the disease through sex, and 34 percent felt the HIV-infected person had the full responsibility.

Given that there were no differences in behaviours or attitudes towards HIV disclosure, safer sex or responsibility for HIV prevention between those aware of the law or not, and the very high risk of human rights violations and miscarriages of justice in the application of HIV disclosure laws, the study’s findings strongly suggest that HIV-specific criminal statutes criminalising HIV non-disclosure without consideration of actual risk and harm, and proof of a suitably culpable state of mind are bad laws that should be repealed.

HIV Criminalisation Discourages HIV Testing, Creates Disabling and Uncertain Legal Environment for People with HIV in U.S. (Press Release)

The SERO Project: National Criminalization Survey

Washington, D.C. July 25, 2012

Preliminary data from the Sero Project’s ground-breaking survey of more than two thousand people living with HIV (PLHIV) in the U.S., released July 25, 2012, at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., reveals HIV criminalization is a significant deterrent to testing, accessing care and treatment for HIV:

• One quarter of respondents (25.1%) indicated they knew one or more people who told them they did not want to get tested for HIV because of fear of prosecution if they tested positive; more than 5% indicated that “many people” have told them this.

• Almost half of respondents (49.6%) felt it could be reasonable for someone to avoid testing for HIV, and 41.6% felt it could be reasonable to avoid HIV treatment for fear of prosecution.

“We expected the survey to show criminalization is a deterrent to HIV testing, but these findings indicate it is an even bigger obstacle than previously believed,” said Laurel Sprague, the project’s principal investigator who is also Sero’s Research Director. “The community’s response has been tremendous; it is obvious there is tremendous concern about HIV criminalization. I look forward to further analysis of the survey responses, including of those who are HIV negative or do not know their HIV status, which will be released in a report later this year.”

Sean Strub, Sero’s executive director and the founder of POZ Magazine, said “This is a wake-up call for public health officials and policymakers who have failed to recognize the extent to which HIV criminalization hampers efforts to combat AIDS. We’ve known for years that HIV criminal statutes do not achieve their intended purpose, to reduce HIV transmission. Now it is clear that these statutes are driving the epidemic, because of how they fuel stigma and discourage HIV testing and accessing the treatment that reduces transmission.”

Strub and Sprague are both long‐term HIV survivors and advocates who have championed self‐empowerment for people with HIV to combat stigma and improve health outcomes for themselves and their communities. The 2,076 people living with HIV in the United States who responded to the Sero survey also painted a disturbing picture of a disabling legal environment for people with HIV:

• More than a third (38.4%) reported they worried a few times or frequently about being falsely accused of not disclosing their HIV positive status; amongst transgendered persons that cigure rose to 60%.

• Respondents in the Midwest (45.9%) and South (40.9%) were more likely to express fear about false accusations than those in the West (35.1%) and Northeast (32.3%).

• Just less than two‐thirds (62.7%) of respondents were not certain whether or not their state required people with HIV to disclose their status to a partner before having sex, with the uncertainty highest in the Northeast (72.4%) and West (71.3%) and South (61.6%) and lowest in the Midwest (40.4%).

• There were significant regional differences amongst those reporting that they were informed about potential criminal liability at the time of their diagnosis. The highest rate was in the Midwest (28.8%) and South (14.8%) and lower rates were seen in the West (7.5%) and Northeast (4.1%).

• Respondents also indicated a lack of clarity about what could subject them to prosecution (47.7% “not clear”, 30% “somewhat clear” and 22.3% “completely clear”). Men reported a greater lack of clarity on this point.

The top reasons cited for disclosure were that it is “the right thing to do”, “to have honest relationships” and “not cause harm to another” or “to protect their partner”, not that it was required by law or because of fear of criminal prosecution. More than 8 in 10 PLHIV in the study said that they believe that sexual partners share equally in the responsibility for HIV prevention.

The detailed survey, which required 20 to 25 minutes to complete, was conducted online in June and July of 2012, and is the first in‐depth examination of the effect of HIV criminalization on people with HIV and one of the largest surveys of people in the U.S. with HIV ever conducted. Further results and analysis will be released later in the year.

The Sero Project is a not‐for‐profit human rights organization combating HIV‐related stigma by working to end inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV for non‐disclosure of their HIV status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or HIV transmission.

The Sero Project is supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the H. van Ameringen Foundation as well as many individual supporters. Special thanks to POZ Magazine, the North American regional affiliate of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, the Positive Women’s Network, The Body and other community resources that assisted in survey promotion.

Special thanks also to Thom Riehle, Ian Anderson, Edwin Bernard, Regan Hofmann, Cecilia Chung, Julie Davids, Mark S. King and Alex Garner for their expertise and support.

Download the press release here.  More detailed preliminary data can be downloaded here.


Global Commission on HIV and the Law: an analysis of their HIV criminalisation recommendations

Today, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law finally issued its long-awaited report, ‘HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health.’  It was well worth the wait.

“Fundamentally unjust, morally harmful, and virtually impossible to enforce with any semblance of fairness, such laws impose regimes of surveillance and punishment on sexually active people living with HIV, not only in their intimate relations and reproductive and maternal lives, but also in their attempts to earn a living.”

That’s how the Chapter 2 of the report, focusing on the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, potential exposure and non-intentional transmission begins.  The rest of the chapter pulls no punches either.

Of course, the Global Commmission, and the report itself, cover much more than HIV criminalisation, and it pulls no punches recommending repeal of punitive laws impacting consensual same-sex sex, sex work, drug use and patent laws affecting access to HIV treatment.  However, since this blog – and the focus of my work – is specifically about HIV criminalisation I’m only going to focus on the six pages in the report (and five pages of references) that specifically addresses this issue. 

Five recommendations on HIV criminalisation: click on image to enlarge

To cut to the chase, the report recommends the following:

To ensure an effective, sustainable response to HIV that is consistent with human rights obligations:

2.1. Countries must not enact laws that explicitly criminalise HIV transmission, HIV exposure or failure to disclose HIV status. Where such laws exist, they are counterproductive and must be repealed. The provisions of model codes that have been advanced to support the enactment of such laws should be withdrawn and amended to conform to these recommendations.
2.2. Law enforcement authorities must not prosecute people in cases of HIV non-disclosure or exposure where no intentional or malicious HIV transmission has been proven to take place. Invoking criminal laws in cases of adult private consensual sexual activity is disproportionate and counterproductive to enhancing public health.
2.3. Countries must amend or repeal any law that explicitly or effectively criminalises vertical transmission of HIV. While the process of review and repeal is under way, governments must place moratoria on enforcement of any such laws.
2.4. Countries may legitimately prosecute HIV transmission that was both actual and intentional, using general criminal law, but such prosecutions should be pursued with care and require a high standard of evidence and proof.
2.5. The convictions of those who have been successfully prosecuted for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission must be reviewed. Such convictions must be set aside or the accused immediately released from prison with pardons or similar actions to ensure that these charges do not remain on criminal or sex offender records.

The first four points are consistent with the 2008 UNAIDS/UNDP Policy Brief recommendations but go further in terms of tone. For example, using “must” rather than “should”.

Point 2.3 on vertical transmission really needs no further explanation and should be implemented immediately. 

But what did the Commission mean by some of the recommendations, which, when you read them from the point of view of a legislator, or someone who can affect policy in the criminal justice system, might not be quite as clear as they could be?

And what about point 2.5 recommending that anyone imprisoned for HIV non-disclosure, potential exposure or non-intentional transmission have their case reviewed?  Although it doesn’t spell out the criteria for review, they should be consistent with the International Guidelines on HIV and Human Rights published by UNAIDS and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  Since 1998 they have recommended that in order for someone to be convicted, “the elements of foreseeability, intent, causality and consent [must be] clearly and legally established to support a guilty verdict….” If we now consider that the Commission recommends that only intentional and malicious transmission should be a crime, if the above criteria have not been met (and in most cases they have not), the Global Commission recommends immediate release from prison, a pardon and removal of criminal records (and in the US and Canada, removal from the sex offender registry).

I asked Professor Matthew Weait, who served as a member of the Technical Advisory Group for the Commission (the TAG), with particular responsibility for HIV criminalisation about how we should interpret recommendations 2.1, 2.2 and 2.4 in the real world.

The excellent working paper that he prepared for the Commission, The Criminalisation of HIV Exposure and Transmission: A Global Review is also now available to download. A second paper, Criminalisation and the Moral Responsibility for Sexual Transmission of HIV by Matthew and his fellow TAG member, Professor Scott Burris is also now available.

Q: In 2.1 Does the Commission only recommend repealing laws that explicitly criminalise non-disclosure, exposure or transmission?  What, for example, does that mean for Canada, which uses general laws to prosecute non-disclosure?

It’s a good question!  Before I answer it, can I emphasise that what I say here should in no way should be seen as reflecting the views or interpretation either of other TAG members, the Commissioners, or the UNDP Secretariat that provided logistical and other support.  They are personal views.  So – with that in mind – I think it’s important to read this Recommendation in the context of the Report as a whole. What is abundantly clear is that the Commission believes that only the actual and deliberate transmission of HIV may legitimately be criminalised, and all the Recommendations need to be read in that light. This means, in my view, that countries which criminalise HIV under their general laws are also being addressed here.  The reason is that in many such countries it is only HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure which is prosecuted in the criminal courts under general provisions which could also be used in the context of other diseases.  The fact that other diseases are not, or extremely rarely so, means that HIV is – to my mind – explicitly criminalised.  Just because HIV is criminalised under a general law doesn’t detract from the fact that such criminalisation is explicit in practice.  You’ll have to follow this up with the Commission though!

Q: In 2.2 Does the Commission mean that law enforcement authorities can prosecute for HIV exposure and non-disclosure where there is proof of intentional or malicious transmission?

I don’t think so, no.  The “must not” construction of the Recommendation does not imply the opposite, especially where to read it this way would be against the entire tenor of the Report. It is very important, in my view, that law enforcement authorities do not take this as a “green light” – not only because it would lead to over-criminalisation (belt and braces) – but it would serve no purpose.  

Q: In 2.4 Does the Commission suggest that prosecutions can still take place that aren’t malicious?  How do you prosecute “with care”?

This Recommendation is in permissive language, similar to that used in the UNAIDS 2008 Policy Guidance, and does not – I think this is important – mandate criminalisation as such.  It seems to me to be intended to provide states with a “let out” clause, reflecting the views of many in the wider HIV policy community, and is politically pragmatic and realistic. Some might think it is a unfortunate that this is in a list of Recommendations, but I think I understand why it has been. It might have been better to phrase the Recommendation in the form, “If countries wish to criminalise HIV, they should only do so in cases of actual and intentional transmission”, but I don’t think we should get too hung up on the exact language here. As with the other Recommendations, it has to be read in the light of everything else in the Report, where it is clear that Commission is arguing for the most restrictive approach possible. It will also, by the way, be important to see whether the Report itself addresses in more detail what is meant by intentional and malicious. Different jurisdictions interpret these terms is in a variety of ways – some equating them with knowledge of status, some with knowledge of the risk of transmission, and some with deliberate or purposive intent (or a combination of all these). The fact that the Commission uses the term “malicious” in Recommendation 2.2 suggests that it has in mind deliberate and purposive intention

As for question of pursuing prosecutions ‘with care’, it is clear that the Commission has affirmed what has been emphasised in a number of recent policy documents, including a recent initiative of UNAIDS.  The highest (I would personally have preferred that, rather than “high”) is necessary when dealing with liability based on expert evidence (as transmission cases typically are, at least where the scientific analysis facilities are available).

Catherine Hanssens highlights the problem with US HIV disclosure laws

This morning, the Global Commission held a press conference that featured several of the Commissioners: US Congresswoman Barbara Lee; Canada’s Stephen Lewis (Co-Director and Co-Founder of AIDS-Free World); and His Excellency Mr. Festus Gontebanye Mogae, former President of Botswana.

Three members of civil society also participated: Nevena Ciric, More than Help, AIDS +, Serbia; Maurice Tomlinson, AIDS-Free World, Jamaica and Nick Rhoades, Positive Justice Project, The Center for HIV Law and Policy, United States.

Nick Rhoades spoke with clarity and power about the lessons learned from his own terrible experience. HIV criminalisation wastes money, harms prevention and human rights, he concluded. Return sanity, science and justice to HIV laws.

I was convicted in 2008 under Iowa’s law titled “criminal transmission of HIV” although HIV was not actually transmitted.  This involved a one-time, consensual sexual encounter with another adult.  My viral load was undetectable, I used a condom – and again, I did not transmit HIV.  However, none of these facts mattered in the eyes of the law.  The judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and the requirement to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life.  After sentencing, the judge was subject to a significant amount of pressure from advocates in the U.S. and even Europe – requesting my sentence be reconsidered.  After being incarcerated for over a year, he released me on five years probation, but I am of course, still a sex offender. [Nick is now appealing his conviction.]

During my course through the correctional system, I transferred facilities four times.  Each time I was transferred, I would be either without medications or missing certain medications for a period of days. And when I was released, I had lost my place on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, so I was put on a wait-list. The correctional system offered no assistance in finding a social worker or medication assistance once I was released from prison.

The personal toll this has taken on me and my family and friends cannot be measured.  This has caused great mental anguish, financial burdens and major professional barriers for me, now that I am a sex offender.  I have been virtually unemployable.  I am fortunate enough now to be employed from home by The Center for HIV Law & Policy, but most aren’t so lucky.  To this day, I deal with terrible depression.  It’s not easy.

What’s more, the price to enforce these archaic laws is considerable.  The approximate cost to tax-payers to incarcerate just one individual in Iowa – factoring in the cost of medications and routine medical care is approximately sixty-five to seventy thousand dollars annually. This cost is borne by tax-payers and doesn’t include the lost income and contribution to society that incarceration causes. Then consider the price to supervise people convicted under these laws while on probation or parole – often being forced to add in the costs of monitoring offenders on the sex offender registry – and the public is paying an incredible amount of money for enforcing laws that, more often than not, are punishing people for not transmitting HIV.  In many cases, such as mine, taxpayers are paying for the enforcement of laws that punish people with HIV who actually follow the primary prevention messages of public health counselors: stay in treatment, keep your viral load as close to undetectable as possible, use condoms – and otherwise, keep sex safe[r].

These laws enhance stigma that cripples people living with HIV/AIDS from accessing services. They make disclosure issues much more difficult due to ramifications one may face with a mere accusation. I also believe stigma, made thicker by these laws, is keeping people from getting tested.

Furthermore, I have been a member of the Iowa HIV Community Planning group – chaired by the Iowa Department of Public Health – since 2009.  I see all the data.  This year, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s prevention-based budget faced a 25% decrease which will eventually grow to 55% over the next five years. Dollars marked to treat people in care are next for slashing.  Those in care and with undetectable viral loads are up to 96% less likely to transmit the virus, yet we are cutting funding away from proven HIV prevention programs while increasing costly prosecution and imprisonment of people like me living with HIV.  When one considers that there is no evidence that these laws have any impact on people’s sexual behaviors, it is clearly not an effective use of our resources while infringing on individuals’ human rights and working in conflict with public health goals.

Criminal laws and policies that target people based on their HIV status must be repealed.  Please support Congressperson Barbara Lee’s “Repeal HIV Discrimination Act” now, and engage with those who are promoting the movement to return sanity, science and justice to the law’s treatment of HIV.

Following Nick’s powerful testminony, much of the rest of the Global Commission press conference mostly focused on HIV criminalisation in the US and Canada – as it should since the vast majority of prosecutions take place in these two countries, a fact highlighted by Stephen Lewis and echoed by Nick Rhoades.

I was very honoured to be quoted in the report.

I asked Rep. Barbara Lee how it is posssible to change these bad laws when it appears that they have popular support. “Modernising these laws won’t be easy,” she said. “But I have to tell you that the public isn’t really aware of these laws. Once you explain it to them, they’re shocked. What we have to do is mount public education campaigns about these laws. At state level, many state legislators don’t know these laws are on the books, and they can change them if there is the political will. So we need public and political education and civil society support for a political movement to hold politicians accountable. But… yes we can!”

As for other countries using general criminal laws to prosecute non-disclosure, potential exposure and transmission, in the next few months UNAIDS will be releasing a policy consideration document that will help countries understand exactly how to limit their application through a better understanding of HIV science as well as public health and human rights principles. 

There’s going to be a lot more happening around the Global Commission’s Report and all of the amazing evidence the Commission accrued during it’s two year existence.  I recommend spending time on the Global Commission website where you will now find a treasure trove of documents to help further anti-criminalisation advocacy and eventually lead to HIV justice for all.

Greece: Matthew Weait on the moral panic over the mass arrest of female sex workers with HIV

Matthew Weait, Professor of Law and Policy at Birkbeck College, University of London guest blogs on Wednesday’s arrest of 17 HIV-positive women who allegedly worked illegally as sex workers.  Greek authorities are accusing them of intentionally causing serious bodily harm. 

The arrest in Athens of 17 female sex workers living with HIV this week is outrageous on many levels. It is not that a significant number of them have had their right to respect for private life violated (12 had their photographs published on a police website), nor that there is uncertainty as to whether the women concerned knew their HIV status, nor that the women were arrested after a screening process by the Greek Centre for Disease Control (how voluntary was that, I wonder?), nor that they have been charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm (a charge almost impossible to prove, and on the facts arising simply from having unprotected sex with clients – according to news reports it is unclear whether any clients have actually been infected as a result of sex with the women concerned). All these things are bad enough, but what is really appalling is the way in which it is the women who have been identified as the legitimate locus of control and the subject of punitive state response.

It is appalling, but it is entirely to be expected. There is a long and ignoble tradition of locating the source of STIs in women in general, and female sex workers in particular. In the context of HIV criminalization this tradition has reached a new peak (or, perhaps better, a new trough). Put simply, HIV criminalization has compounded, and added a new and frightening dimension to, the longstanding idea that female sex workers are a source of pollution threatening the cleanliness of men. It is not just that by identifying them as the risk and the cause of any harm men may suffer, the men concerned (and men in general) are able to divert attention from their own responsibility (though this is important), it is that criminalization has provided an opportunity, in this context, to reinforce the idea that women are inherently dirty, that HIV is dirty, and that cleansing (what a frightening word that is) through punishment, containment and deportation (the women in Athens were foreign nationals) is a reasonable and justifiable response.

Of this logic we should be very afraid. The elimination of dirt at a political level has found expression, at its most extreme, in the slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis, in the apartheid regime of South Africa, in eugenic science and rules relating to miscegenation. It is evident in any attempt by a society to maintain its ‘purity’ by imposing border controls that require would-be immigrants to undergo tests that filter out the sick and unhealthy.

At an individual level, the elimination or exclusion of dirt – or rather the practices, attitudes and response mechanisms that attempt to achieve this (prosecution, imprisonment, deportation) mirror a wider political project in which the HIV positive body is punished, marginalised and devalued because it represents everything that is feared in post-modernity. The HIV positive body is a paradigm site for repressive legal and political response because of its capacity to reproduce itself in the body of those for whom it represents a threat to physical and ontological security, and because that reproduction occurs – and can only occur – through the merging of bodies via the co-mingling of their ‘inside’. Elizabeth Grosz, an Australian feminist theorist has put this better than anyone else when she explains that:

Body fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside. They affront a subject’s aspiration toward autonomy and self-identity. They attest to a certain irreducible ‘dirt’ or ‘disgust’, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body, a testimony to the fraudulence or impossibility of the ‘clean’ and ‘proper’. (Grosz, 1994: 193-4)

For Grosz, it is women’s bodies, their unstable and destabilizing corporeality, that serve both to affirm men’s belief in their own inviolability and, thus, the bounded body (i.e. male bodies) as the normal, universal and legitimate form of subjectivity. The seminal flows that emit from male bodies, reduced to a by-product of sexual pleasure rather than conceived as a manifestation of immanent materiality, and as something that is directed, linear and non-reciprocal, enables men to sustain the fantasy of the closed body and of the possibility of control over it. The socio-cultural and psychological dimension of Mackinnon’s (in)famous assertion about the power necessarily instantiated in heterosexual relations (‘Man fucks woman: subject verb object’ (Mackinnon, 1982: 541), this fantasy is a prerequisite for the maintenance of masculinity, and of the mastery – over women, over nature – that masculinity enables, or which is its prerogative.

To receive flow, or to be in position where there is a risk of flow in the other direction, is to be identified with the feminine (whether as woman, or as passive homosexual) and to lose the phallic advantage; to acknowledge the essential materiality of the body, that its flows are not merely by-products of the body but constitutive of it, is an admission that strikes at the heart of masculinity, at the security which is its privilege, and at the legitimacy of the hierarchised and gendered socio-economic order upon which its privileged status depends. Understood in these terms, it is unsurprising that it is women’s bodies (despite the relatively low risk of female to male sexual transmission) that are – within the discourse that frames the heterosexual HIV epidemic– characterised as the source of infection. As Grosz explains, this discourse is one that makes

… women, in line with the conventions and practices associated with contraceptive procedures, the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women. Men seem to refuse to believe that their body fluids are the ‘contaminants’. It must be women who are the contaminants. Yet, paradoxically, the distinction between a ‘clean’ woman and an ‘unclean’ one does not come from any presumption about the inherent polluting properties of the self-enclosure of female sexuality, as one might presume, but is a function of the quantity, and to a lesser extent the quality, of the men she has already been with. So she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’. (Grosz, 1994: 197)

Given Grosz’s analysis it is hardly unsurprising that the Centre for Disease Control in Greece had 1500 calls from concerned men once the story about the brothels broke. Far from accepting any responsibility they might have for having sex which carried the risk of STI and HIV infection, it was entirely to be expected that their concern was whether the women might have infected them, and that the legal response was to round up the women. Patriarchy is, after all, a Greek word.

The response of the Greek health Minister, Andreas Leverdos, prompted in part by a massive rise in HIV infections in Greece in recent months (954 new infections were reported in 2011, a 57 percent increase from the previous year), and also – surely – by the political value in deporting non-nationals at a time when Greece is in economic meltdown, was to suggest criminalizing unprotected sex in brothels. He is reported as saying,

 Let’s make this a crime. It’s not all the fault of the illegally procured woman, it’s 50 percent her fault and 50 percent that of the client, perhaps more because he is paying the money.

On the face of it this response suggests some recognition of shared responsibility. However, it is a pipe-dream – I suggest – to imagine that doing this (even if it were politically viable, which I doubt) would have the effect of eradicating the deeply entrenched view that female sex workers are to blame for their clients ills; nor is criminalization of sexual behaviour that carries the risk of HIV infection a productive or constructive answer to anything. It would simply perpetuate the idea that punitive laws are an appropriate response to what is properly understood as a public health issue that should be addressed through wider awareness, education and an affirmation of the importance of taking care of, and respecting, ourselves and others.

(Reposted from Matthew Weait’s own blog, ‘The Times That Belong To Us’ with kind permission. You can also follow Matthew on Twitter @ProfWetpaint)

Edwin J Bernard: Where HIV Is a Crime, Not Just a Virus (AIDS 2010)

Edwin J Bernard presents a global overview of laws and prosecutions at the XVIII International AIDS Conference, Vienna, 22 July 2010.

Abstract: Where HIV is a crime, not just a virus: a global ranking of prosecutions for HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission.

Issues: The global (mis)use of the criminal law to control and punish the behaviour of PLHIV was highlighted at AIDS 2008, where Justice Edwin Cameron called for “a campaign against criminalisation”. However advocacy on this vitally important issue is in its infancy, hampered by lack of information on a local, national and international level.

Description: A global overview of prosecutions to December 2009, based on data from GNP+ Global Criminalisation Scan (; media reports collated on and WHO Europe pilot human rights audit. Top 20 ranking is based on the ratio of rate per year/per HIV population.

Lessons learned: Prosecutions for non-intentional HIV exposure and transmission continue unabated. More than 60 countries have prosecuted HIV exposure or transmission and/or have HIV-specific laws that allow for prosecutions. At least eight countries enacted new HIV-specific laws in 2008/9; new laws are proposed in 15 countries or jurisdictions; 23 countries actively prosecuted PLHIV in 2008/9.

Next steps: PLHIV networks and civil society, in partnership with public sector, donor, multilateral and UN agencies, must invest in understanding the drivers and impact of criminalisation, and work pragmatically with criminal justice system/lawmakers to reduce its harm.

Video produced by